By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE HAVE ALL PLAYED THE CHILDREN’S GAME OF REPEATING A WORD UNTIL IT BEGINS TO SOUND FOREIGN, OR SILLY, to be drained, in fact, of all real meaning. Context being everything, no less in photography than in any other form of expression, we can often make images that, because they have been so endlessly replicated over the years, become drained of their power, and beg for a re-imagining.
In brief, some things have been photographed so many times that they need to be taken far out of context to rebirth them as vital subject matter.
Look around the next airport souvenir shop you encounter. Look at the paperweights, the tee-shirts, the memorial shot glasses. There, in a moment, you see the symbols of the town you’re visiting (or leaving), reduced to the most hideous kitsch ever created. Lady Liberty. The Space Needle. San Francisco trolleys. You can’t “do” the towns in which these icons hold court unless you visit them and crank off a few snaps. They’re “to do” items, but not “must do”‘s. And every depiction of them is post-card standard, seen from a certain angle and in a certain orientation.
Sadly, many of these sights still could hold the symbolic power they once had, except that few of us are demanding that said power be brought forth. Ironically, we approach totally unknown subjects, things we blithely stumble onto, with the freshest eyes, not knowing the “correct” way to visualize them. We produce instinctual reactions based on how and where we first saw a thing, without the accumulated cultural baggage about how it’s “supposed” to look. We visualize it personally, rather than measuring it against the standard of thousands of other images taken of it.
So how to photograph the over-documented icon? Well, for one thing, the “postcard” view, the one in the travel brochures, must be abandoned completely. Instead of making it a homework assignment to visit a well-known place, why not assume you’ll get one random, fleeting glance at it….through a dirty window, a picket fence, a reflection in a window….and have that be your only chance to photograph it. Instead of trying to get the image “right”, pretend that you have never seen this thing, whether it be a temple or a tower. And imagine, further, that you didn’t even know the thing existed, but that, upon rounding a blind corner, you were suddenly forced to react to it.
As seen at the top of the page, the sign for Seattle’s famed Public Market is often photographed as if it were the market itself, filling the frame of many photos with just its giant red neon letters. In reality, it is a small component in a vital, bustling neighborhood filled with rich visuals. Why not merely suggest the sign as part of a larger tapestry? More importantly, what is your vision?
One great advantage in making new images of old icons is that you know so much of the standard view of the thing that, in abstracting it, you know the viewer will still follow you on the journey….that is, they can make the leap from the literal to the symbolic. It’s like improvising a jazz solo on a well-known melody.
Visualization is the photographer’s most important skill, but occasionally, re-visualization is even more vital…and revitalizing.